It was 2005 when a team of six Spelman students formed the SpelBots and began defying the myth that women are not equipped to be leaders in the sciences.  Since that time, six new teams have moved from four-legged AIBO robotic pets to two-legged humanoid robots, traveling to various locations in and out of the country sharing their history-making story and competing in robocups. In those early days, securing sponsorship for their travels came from the generosity of others.

That has changed for the SpelBots, who have secured a $525,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to fund and expand STEM outreach. “Normally when we’ve competed, we have had to request funding from the College or a company and then the students do voluntary research that takes a lot of hours,” said Dr. Williams, the SpelBots founder, and associate professor and chair of computer and information sciences.  “Competing in a robocup is an opportunity to do research, so the funding is to do research, travel and also do K-12 outreach. In the past, we’ve gotten lots of requests to do mentoring but haven’t had the time or financial resources to do so.”

Tyler Davis, the SpelBots team leader and co-captain, is enthusiastic about the increased capabilities the NSF grant will provide the program.

Tyler Davis trains new SpelBots club members in the SpelBots lab.

“We provide outreach to minority students all over the world, especially young Black women, [and] we are pushing for more African-American girls to get involved in robotics and other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields because research has shown that at the middle-school age, girls start to become less confident in their math and science abilities,” said Tyler Davis, junior dual-degree engineering computer science and computer engineering major. “Today, the faces of technology are Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg – all Caucasian males. The SpelBots’ goal is to change this stereotype by providing mentorship to local girl robotics teams.”

Davis is happy that the NSF grant will enable the team to expand its research and knowledge on artificial intelligence and the cutting-edge technology of tomorrow as well as change the stereotype about who enters this industry.

According to the Janice Cuny, NSF program director for computing education, the computing work force has two basic problems. “We are not producing enough degrees to keep up with projected IT job growth, and we have a longstanding underrepresentation of women, African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and persons with disabilities,” said Cuny, whose program responsibilities at NSF include Broadening Participation in Computing Alliance Program and Computing Education for the 21st Century. “Our hope is that programs like the SpelBots will inspire kids to learn more about computing and to eventually move into careers in computing.”

From left: Dr. Mentewab Ayalew, Daria Jordan, Professor Jerry Wever and Dr. Andrew Williams

Outreach serves as a good recruiting tool for the SpelBots. Co-captain Daria Jordan, C’2015, was a sophomore in high school when Dr. Williams came to her school for a robotics demonstration. While she was interested in coming to Spelman, Dr. Williams brought her a new perspective.

“I had some interest in robotics, and I knew I wanted to attend Spelman College; therefore, Dr. Williams coming to speak about the SpelBots sealed the deal in me wanting to explore more about robotics,” said Jordan, who started an all-female robotics team during her junior year in high school and plans to pursue a Ph.D. in robotics after Spelman. “There is a major need for more Black women in robotics and science with it becoming such a lucrative field. It is a growing field in the healthcare, automotive and technological industries.”

In addition to the founding competition team, the SpelBots have expanded to include a computer club that is Atlanta University Center wide and open to all majors.  Dr. Williams calls this effort “inreach.” “We want to show the opportunities in computer science and robotics to all majors,” he said. “Computer science kind of overlaps the sciences in most of the majors.  Even if you’re doing drama, there are computers involved in the creation of scripts and films. Computer science is everywhere.”

For more news about the SpelBots, like them on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter. – Renita Mathis is director of Interactive Communications and associate director for the Office of Communications at Spelman College.

How can more young Black women be encouraged to pursue careers in STEM?  Be sure to join Inside Spelman’s Tweet Chat on Wednesday, November. 16, from noon to 1 p.m. to share your thoughts on Black women and STEM. The best tweet wins!